Part 1 – Painting a Canvas
One of the many challenges I have faced over the years is the ability to present the visual aspect in my mind to the players. There are many ways to handle this problem, but we are going to focus on the most challenging one which is simply talking.
You can make use of pictures and maps, but these are only useful to a specific point. A picture does not explain how something sounds or smells, nor does it explain how specific actions played out in each situation. Your ability to explain what you see in YOUR mind to your players is of immense importance as it keeps them engaged and focused, but more importantly it makes sure everyone is visualising the same picture.
Below I will show two ways in which this is done, one is bad and the other is more… acceptable.
The scenario we going to work with is one of the more common and simple situations players may find themselves in and we going to make use of some Dungeons and Dragons fantasy.
The party or group finds themselves walking into a small fishing village in the early hours of the morning after traveling a long distance.
Firstly – Getting it wrong (very wrong)
“You are approaching a village, there are a few people walking around and a river on the other side of the buildings.”
That explanation would lead to many questions from the players. You, the storyteller, have explained almost nothing. Each player now sits with very different perceptions on what is happening and what they see. Although you have explained honestly and very simply what is facing them, you have not helped drive the vision to a collective whole. Each player is now building a picture in his mind individually instead of collectively and one must assume vastly different to the picture in your mind.
Now – Getting it “MORE” right
“It is still very early in the morning as the sun rises behind you, her heat warming your backs after a cold night of traveling. The sky is mostly clear except for a few clouds ahead painted in washes of pink and purple. Your feet ache from walking and your shoulders hurt from the strain of your carry packs as you make your way along the old and well-traveled road when suddenly the sound of a flowing river carries on the wind. The village should be close.
Making your way around the last bend in the trees you are met with the welcoming sight of the small fishing village and the sound of the river carries to your ears gaining volume as you approach.
Through the few scattered buildings you can see the village starting to wake up as people go about their morning routines. The smell of smoke from morning fires fills the air mixed with the lingering smell of fish which from the previous days catch.
The local tavern is the only major building in front of you and a wooden sign sways in the gentle breeze with the words “The Guzzling Gills” inscribed in blackened letters. There are three larger and distinctive buildings further into the village but you cannot discern their purpose or trade from where you are.
Nets are currently getting hauled out to boats tied to jetties and the village children have already started their morning play pretending to be pirates until their fathers chase them away to laughing mothers.
A dog rounds a corner and instinctively runs towards you and starts barking, his posture almost defensive drawing the attention of a child as he runs from the boats. With no hesitation he stops and yells with a pointing finger “MOM LOOK!”
Slowly the villagers start to look at the direction the child is pointing and stop what they doing to stare at you, with the barking of a dog drowning out their stunned silence. “
The differences between the two examples are clear and the second “acceptable” one is almost like reading a book. Which is your main agenda as the storyteller, you are always painting a canvas.
There are many aspects to think about when you are painting this canvas and some of these things you may not take into consideration. For many of my early years I never spoke about the tiny details, like smells and sounds and focused more on the visual aspects. I would lead sounds with a skill check and make it more of a reward than a useful description.
There is, however, a balance to this. Talking for too long about the various species of bird that are currently in the forest may lead to your players not only being bored, but staring at you in a very strange way.
So you have to find this balance of painting the important elements while leaving much to be filled in by the imagination which is again, much like a good book. It must be conveyed with a confidence that draws the players in for that briefest of moments and almost captivates their attention yet simple and short enough to hold it.
The same approach should be used on and off when there is an action in play. Anything from picking a lock and opening a door to swinging a sword and dispatching the enemy. These are quick and easy descriptions that differ from the village example as they are in the moment and a constant fluidity is needed to keep action interesting.
Telling the player to roll dice, succeed and simply saying “You succeed in picking the lock” could easily become something more with a quick sketch.
“You feel the mechanism for the lock push back against your thieves tools and you slowly apply pressure with the alternate hand. There is a soft ‘click’ and the pressure you feel on the picks falls inwards away from your hands. The door is unlocked”
In that description there is a small moment where players don’t know what is going to happen. The door was unlocked but could have easily led to a trap activating. The confirmation comes only towards the end with the last and very short sentence. You can’t and shouldn’t use the same mechanic in all situations, so keep the descriptions varied and short but more interesting than simply saying “you succeed” but at the same time there is always a need for balance.
Too much description can have the reverse effect on your group.
Moments like these cannot be planned in advance like the village example. Instead you would be verbally pulling this out of thin air on the fly and becoming descriptive as a situation unfolds.
If the player failed in picking the lock my description would be vastly different and perhaps shorter. But as a storyteller I don’t know if the player will succeed or not so for descriptive engagement in this regard you cannot plan.
So have fun with it, make it your own. Put your own twist on your descriptive story telling but do it with confidence.
But most of all have fun with it.
Until next week that is where I leave you, let your thoughts flow into descriptions and paint a canvas with your words.